C&IT Report - Make a Sustainable Difference in Events

More than ever before, the meeting and event industry has a role to play in addressing global and local sustainability challenges. We teamed up with C&IT to create an Expert Report to find out why it’s important to embrace sustainability and how planners can easily incorporate more sustainable initiatives at events. Read on to find out more.  

When thousands of schoolchildren walked out of classes to join a global protest over climate change in February, the message couldn’t have been clearer – the next generation are demanding action. The future sustainability of our planet is a problem that can no longer be ignored, and public awareness around environmental issues such as plastic waste, global warming and inequality has never been higher.

All businesses have a responsibility to play their part in reducing our impact on the planet. While most will have some form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability policy in place, this doesn’t always extend to their events. But events can create a lot of waste and leave a large carbon footprint, so making them more sustainable can make a huge difference. Meetgreen estimates that the typical conference attendee produces 1.8kg of waste per day, 1.16kg of which goes directly to a landfill. When you multiply that by 1,000 attendees over the course of three days, that translates to 5,670kg of total waste – the equivalent of four compact cars.

Event sustainability is not a new thing, but it hasn’t been high on the priority list. “People get really overwhelmed – sustainability is one of a number of things that planners have to think about. They need to keep in budget, keep all the stakeholders happy, worry about logistics and so much more. Many want to incorporate sustainability, and know they should, but often don’t have the time or resources,” says Bev Ridyard, marketing manager at Positive Impact Events.

Thankfully, sustainability is gradually moving higher up the agenda – a 2018 survey conducted by C&IT revealed that 61% of the UK events professionals surveyed had seen an increase in the impor­tance of CSR in the industry. One of the big­gest barriers to implementing sustainability in events is budget, but it’s important to un­derstand that taking a sustainable approach can actually save costs in the longer term. There is also the brand impact to think about – in a 2018 survey by MIT AgeLab, 59.1% of millennial respondents said they are more concerned about protecting the environment than people in their 60s are, and in numerous studies millennials have said they want to work for, and buy from, environmentally and socially responsible brands. If you ignore sus­tainability and host an event that generates a huge amount of waste, for example, it could have a negative impact on your brand.

No matter how far along the sustainable events journey you are, whether just starting out or ready to implement a more strategic approach, the most important thing is to take action. Here are a few pointers to help...

Start simple and do your research

Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of resources out there to help you get started, but if you’re after an easy checklist to make your events sustainable – it doesn’t exist. The reality is that no one checklist can address sustainability because every event is different, according to Positive Impact.

Ridyard suggests that a good place to start is the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), which form the basis for a shared blueprint among all countries – developed and developing – for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. “There will be at least one SDG that people identify with, for example climate action or good health, that planners can focus on and integrate into their events,” she says. Another useful framework to follow is ISO 20121 – an International Standard for sustainable event management, which was inspired by the London 2012 Olympics.

Start by understanding the impact your event is having on the environment and then decide which impacts you want to focus on and set realistic goals. For example, it could be eliminating single-use disposable plastics such as straws and bot­tles, going paperless, reducing food waste or introducing greener transport. Having a clear objective in place makes it easier to measure the success of any green initiatives.

Collaboration is key

Getting everyone on board, from client stakeholders to third-party agencies, venues, suppliers, spon­sors, exhibitors and participants, is essential to ensure sustainable event goals are met. You could appoint a sustainability champion or team to take the lead on setting goals and making sure things get done. But it’s important to make sure the right people are chosen, as someone too senior might not have the time to commit, while a junior team member might lack the confidence or influence required to get others on board.

In a recent report, BCD Meetings & Events suggests adding sustainability as an agenda item to internal event planning meetings, hosting a Sustainability Happy Hour for an event team to generate creative ideas with organic food or local craft beverages to promote attendance and stimulate discussion, or creating an incentive that rewards team members who take action to support sustainability goals.

Think about how your event partners and participants can help you achieve your sustainability goals and challenge them to take action. For example, you could enforce a zero-waste policy to ensure exhibitors take home all packaging that they bring to the event and include an environmental message on all literature reminding delegates to recycle their paper waste. You could also offer a ‘green exhibitor award’ at the end of your event or charge your exhibitors a fee for excessive waste to encourage good practice.

Think local and make responsible choices

This does not mean that you should only hold local events, as hosting international events is sometimes unavoidable and often necessary for businesses. Where possible, try to choose a destination that champions sustainability. What this means in practice is to champion

venues and accommodation that implement energy efficiency measures, comply with green building standards and/or use renewable energy sources.

For example, as the world’s first carbon-neutral constructed convention centre, The Convention Centre Dublin (The CCD) is one of Europe’s most environmentally friendly venues and hosting an event there can significantly reduce your impact. Choosing venues that are reachable easily by public transportation or on foot from accommodation can also greatly reduce your environmental impact.

Use local suppliers for food, materials and equipment where possible. This cuts down on transportation and supports the local community. Food sustain­ability is a particular area where events can really make a difference – think local, organic, seasonal and Fairtrade options. John Kelly, director of marketing EMEA at BCD M&E, says: “There’s a multitude of things we can do, but one is having more knowledge about where the food has come from. For instance, serving beef instead of chicken at a 500-per­son conference means using 628,000 extra litres of water before that beef gets to the table*.” (*Source: Water Footprint Network, 2017)

Embrace technology

Planners have access to an ever-expanding range of digital technology and tools that not only improve efficiency but also play a key role in the move towards more sustainable events. If you want to reduce waste and environmental impact, you can introduce an online registration system and use digital signage instead of printed paper or foam boards for displaying everything from menus and conference session names to maps and table plans. You can also create an event app for communicating with attendees pre-, during and post-event to save the need to print agendas, updates, handouts, white papers and feedback forms etc.

The World Buiatrics Congress, for example, held its most environmentally sustainable congress in the association’s history in 2016 at The CCD. All elements of the congress that were expected to have a negative impact on the environment were stripped back and replaced with digital alternatives. The CCD’s digital display units, video walls and hanging arrays were used to display session names. A printed abstract book was digitally distributed; a printed pocket programme, alongside the congress app, replaced the full printed version and banner advertising on the app replaced physical delegate bag inserts.

Create an event app for communicating with attendees pre-, during and post-event.

Minimise your travel pre-event by using video conferencing in place of planning meetings for keeping in regular contact with the event team at your chosen venue, and experience the venue virtually using digital technology. The CCD’s VR service enables planners to ‘walk through’ the venue and experience different spaces without physically visiting the building. Plan­ners can also download 3D floor plans and interactive venue plans or take a virtual tour of the building using Google maps.

Technology can also help with measuring and improving sustainable initiatives: for example the MeetGreen Calculator 2.0 is a measurement tool for benchmarking the sustainable elements of your events that integrates aspects of the ISO 20121 and Events Industry Council Sustainable Events Standards.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Choose venues with good waste management and recycling procedures to minimise the impact of your event. For example, The CCD has very high recycling rates, which rank consistently above 97%.

The venue’s custom-designed recycling bins – strategically placed in visible areas around the building where delegate footfall is high – use illustrations as well as text so that international delegates are aware of how to segregate their waste, regardless of language barriers. In addition, these bins are lined with transparent bags to allow CCD Cleaning to monitor the contents and correct any misdirected items.

Think strategically when you are planning your event and explore more sustainable alternatives to non-biodegradable materials such as PVC, vinyl and Foamex. Ban single-use plastics such as cups, bottles and straws – consider serving water in reusable glass bottles instead. Rather than giving out branded novelty items such as plastic pens, you could gift your delegates a reusable stainless-steel water bottle for them to refill throughout the event.

If you must print, use 100% recycled paper, print double-sided and print locally to reduce transport emissions. Use previous years as a guide to print quantities and aim to have no paper waste following the event.

Think of ways to reuse materials from the event, particularly annual confer­ences and exhibitions. For example, you could provide reusable nametag holders and lanyards and collect them at the end of the event for use again the next year, and decorate with natural and reusable items, such as whole fruit, flowers and herbs/plants that can be replanted or donated for others to enjoy after the event.

The recycling rates at The CCD rank consistently above 97%

Don’t forget about social impact

Research by the Global Sustainable Events Summit (GSES) in 2016 revealed that the events industry is too focused on environmental sustainability at the expense of social and economic aspects. It said that by focusing on the environmental impacts of an event, we are focusing on the most challenging pillar of sustainability for the industry to demonstrate results with, and while the environmental impact of events should not be ignored, the industry should improve its ability to tell the story of the positive economic and social impacts of events.

Events can play a key role in leaving a positive impact on the local community in which they are held, and many Convention Bureaux and venues can help connect you with local projects to get involved with. For example, you could organise a fun run in the destination as part of your event and raise funds for a local charity, which also helps meet UNSDG 3 to promote good health. UNSDG 2 is Zero Hunger, so you could research options to donate any leftover food to charitable organisations that will give it to those in need.

If time allows, put aside half a day to volunteer for a local charity project, which could also serve as a teambuilding activity. If time is tight, you can make a difference without even having to leave the venue. A build-a-bike event is a great example of this – where the group divides into teams and each team is tasked to assemble a new child’s bike, which is then donated to local children in need at the end of the event.